A quest with twists

culhwch

Fflur Dafydd The White Trail
Seren 2011

The White Trail is one of Seren Books’ New Stories from the Mabinogion, a retelling of the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. This early Arthurian story described the quest of Culhwch (pronounced Kilhookh) for Olwen, a girl he had fallen violently in love with the moment he had heard about her. But to gain her hand he has to fulfill several impossible tasks set for him by Olwen’s father, tasks he is only able to complete with the help of Arthur and his knights.

It is the longest of the native tales contained in the collection known as the Mabinogion and is a rich and complex narrative, with elements of folklore, fairytale, placename onomastics, Rabelaisian lists, black humour, grotesquery, puns and ritual all thrown in. A modern retelling will have to work very hard to include even a handful of these elements whilst also making it relevant and comprehensible to the reader. Fflur Dafydd makes a fair stab at this, to the extent that she reinterprets the action in a way that throws new light on the Dark Age tale but sensibly excises details that anchor Culhwch only to pre-modern times; on the other hand there are aspects of her narrative that for me technically don’t work, whatever genre you choose to call it.

Continue reading “A quest with twists”

Enter at your peril

Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth
Leading to Cwm Cerwyn, where King Arthur battled Twrch Trwyth

Robert Holdstock Gate of Ivory
Voyager 1998 (as Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn 1997)

At the heart of this fantasy is the medieval Welsh Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen, but there are also echoes of other Celtic texts including The Spoils of Annwn, motifs from classical mythology and references to more recent fiction such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian Huxley, like his father before him, ventures into an ancient woodland — Ryhope Wood — peopled by figures from myth and legend and emanations from dreams and imaginations, following a personal quest born in tragic circumstances. Continue reading “Enter at your peril”